Stop this educational madness

It’s time to resist calls for more mental-health interventions in education.

Calls to raise awareness of mental-health issues and initiatives aimed at encouraging people to ‘come out’ with their problems are coming at us from all sides. Following the World Health Association’s apocryphal proclamation that mental ill-health is the world’s biggest epidemic, there has been a spate of calls in the UK this July to intervene in a crisis among young children in state schools, to offer resilience classes to high-achieving young women in independent schools, and to embed mental-health provision in university courses. And, as I wrote recently on spiked, university support and medical services are under unprecedented pressure from students and their parents to treat a wide range of mental-health ‘issues’.

It is no surprise that schools, colleges, adult education centres, universities and workplaces have responded by offering more ‘support’ for mental-health issues. Funding for the Workers’ Educational Association is now directed at services such as ‘confidence-building’, ‘anger management’ and ‘mutual recovery for mental health’, confining its long-running remit for liberal subjects and ‘return to learn’ to history. Across the education system, individual consultants and commercial outfits tout a seemingly endless cacophony of interventions to eager buyers. Schools pay vast sums for ‘positive motivation’ trainers to take pupils out of a day’s lessons, play them pop music and teach ‘positive-thinking strategies’, while their teachers are reduced to crowd managers and presented as part of the problem. In a market free-for-all, some schools run their own ‘mental toughness’ training for 16-year-olds taking GCSEs, while others offer mindfulness, circle-time and happiness training. The University of East Anglia has introduced therapy dogs and plans to encourage staff to take their dogs to work. Some universities have compulsory resilience classes for medical students and trainee teachers. Many offer online self-help groups, cognitive-behaviour therapy and stress-management courses. Others are developing masters’ courses in ‘vulnerabilities and protection’.

Far from being a source of shame or stigma, canny students and parents, and sometimes colleagues, latch on to the discourse of mental ill-health for special pleading, for a quick sick note from the doctor, or just to invoke a soft response to lazy or bad behaviour. This year, some universities have mitigation claims on the grounds of mental issues running at 50 per cent. Alongside an army of snake-oil merchants touting dubious products with no evidence of impact, lawyers will soon be profiting from the introduction of the UK government’s new disability legislation as universities will have to start defending themselves against claims that mental-health needs weren’t met. Some institutions are already allocating resources in anticipation of this.

An array of influences is at play. Each five-year revision of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for clinical psychologists designates new behaviours and responses as category disorders and syndromes. These are growing at exponential rates (see, for example, ‘Turning crime into a mental-health issue’). In tandem, the meanings we now attach to stress, anxiety, depression, abuse, trauma, vulnerability and recovery stretch them to the point of banality. But there are also structural factors: as austerity cuts to social-care centres and community-health services start to bite, doctors refer people with mental-health problems to courses run by bodies like the Workers’ Educational Association.

All of this raises the question of how those of us who work in education should respond to what seems to be an unstoppable tide. We can criticise the discourse and point to a self-fulfilling prophecy of need, a highly contagious social construction that turns everyday mundane experiences and relationships, some of which are undoubtedly difficult or troubling, even stressful or anxiety-inducing, into potential mental-health time-bombs. We can get cynical about those who trivialise problems for their own advantage.

Or we can pillory the interventions as a harmless distraction from the routine day-to-day issues, point to the lack of evidence for impact and criticise a pointless waste of scarce resources that doesn’t help those who really need it. More practically, we can become Orwellian experts in Newspeak, rewriting publicity for support services and introductions for ‘freshers’ week’ to erase the language of vulnerability and remove invitations to seek help for anxiety and stress. We can be clearer and more assertive about where scarce resources for support should go and more discerning about sick notes and mitigation. We can tell some people to get a grip. There seem to be more of these kind of upfront responses now than there were a couple of years ago.

But none of these responses stops mental ill-health being increasingly felt and embodied. These problems are not merely socially constructed. Beyond the trivial or cynical claims being made with regard to mental health, more people seem to find everyday life and education a constant source of distress. The idea that almost all people are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable is everywhere, and we need a wider debate about what impact this has had on how we teach and how we relate to people. We need to resist calls for more support and more intervention and start rethinking how education and other meaningful activities can lead to a world outside the self.

Kathryn Ecclestone is professor of education at the University of Sheffield and co-author (with Dennis Hayes) of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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